DNA analysis of mummified remains alters notion of how Renaissance-era child died

TORONTO — An international team of disease detectives has shed new light on a virus that kills almost a million people around the world each year by probing an unusual source — the mummified remains of a young child who died about 450 years ago in Renaissance Italy.

The scientists were able to sequence the complete genome of an ancient strain of hepatitis B after extracting DNA from the naturally mummified body of the two-year-old girl, which was interred with a number of other bodies in the sacristy of the Basilica of Saint Domenico Maggiore in Naples.

In the mid-1980s, before the advent of advanced genomic sequencing, Italian researchers had suggested the child likely died of smallpox because of evidence of rash-like scarring on her body.

“The blisters are clearly all over the face … when you look at the image, your first thought would be smallpox,” agreed Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary geneticist at McMaster University in Hamilton, who co-led the new study with evolutionary biologist Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney.

But after extracting viral DNA from small samples of the child’s skin and bone and analyzing its genetic signature, researchers turned up no evidence of smallpox.

“Nada. We couldn’t find anything,” said Poinar, director of McMaster’s Ancient DNA Centre, who previously helped sequence the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth and traced the genetic evolution of the bacteria that causes bubonic plague.

One of the scientists then turned to what’s called a pathogen enrichment array, a means of testing a DNA sample to see if there’s a genetic match detected among markers for hundreds of viruses, bacteria and other disease-causing agents.

What emerged was a clear signal for hepatitis B, leading the researchers to speculate that the child may have been affected by a rare childhood disease that can follow infection with hepatitis B, known as Gianotti-Crosti syndrome.

“That’s a rash that breaks out extensively on children and it can cause death,” said Poinar.

What surprised the scientists, whose research was published Thursday in the journal PLOS Pathogens, was how little the 16th-century strain of hepatitis B had changed genetically when compared with modern-day samples of the virus.

Hepatitis B is a primarily blood-borne virus that affects the liver. While most adults recover fully from the disease within a few months as their immune system clears the infection, some people develop a chronic lifetime infection that can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. A vaccine can prevent hepatitis B, but there’s no curative treatment.

It’s estimated that one-third of the world’s population has been infected with the virus at some point in their lives and that about 350 million people are currently living with a chronic infection.

“This is a virus that still causes considerable morbidity and mortality today across the globe, especially in underdeveloped countries and for lower socioeconomic status individuals,” said Poinar, noting it began infecting humans about 60,000 years ago.

“The more we understand about the behaviour of past pandemics and outbreaks, the greater our understanding of how modern pathogens might work and spread, and this information will ultimately help in their control,” he said.

“Understanding the evolution of pathogens is quintessential to figuring out how to eradicate them.”

Just Posted

Women’s marches underway in Canadian cities, a year after Trump inauguration

Women are gathering in dozens of communities across the country today to… Continue reading

Red Deer councillor balks at city getting stuck with more funding responsibilities

Volunteer Central seeks municipal funding after being cut off by government

Olds chicken barn burns to the ground, no livestock harmed

More than 100,000 chickens were saved as fire crews prevent the blaze from spreading

Bear video meant to promote conservation: zoo owner

Discovery Wildlife Park says it will look at other ways to promote its conservation message

WATCH: Setters Place grand opening in Red Deer

Red Deer’s Setters Place officially opened to the public Saturday afternoon.… Continue reading

In photos: Get ready for Western Canadian Championships

Haywood NorAm Western Canadian Championships and Peavey Mart Alberta Cup 5/6 start… Continue reading

WATCH: Red Deer city council debates cost-savings versus quality of life

Majority of councillors decide certain services are worth preserving

Got milk? Highway reopened near Millet

A southbound truck hauling milk and cartons collided with a bridge

Stettler’s newest residents overcame fear, bloodshed to come here

Daniel Kwizera, Diane Mukasine and kids now permanent residents

Giddy up: Red Deer to host Canadian Finals Rodeo in 2018

The CFR is expected to bring $20-30 million annually to Red Deer and region

Ice dancers Virtue and Moir to carry flag at Pyeongchang Olympics

Not since Kurt Browning at the 1994 Lillehammer Games has a figure… Continue reading

Beer Canada calls on feds to axe increasing beer tax as consumption trends down

OTTAWA — A trade association for Canada’s beer industry wants the federal… Continue reading

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month